Smino plays to strengths for better or worse on ‘NOIR’

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Smino’s sophomore effort NOIR is a masterclass in idiosyncrasy that mostly delivers on the rapper’s enormous promise but is held back by confusing stylistic choices that impede its natural flow.

Born Christopher Smith Jr., Smino is a much-needed breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale movement within hip-hop today. The St. Louis, Missouri newcomer dropped his genre-blending debut album blkswn to huge critical acclaim, immediately becoming a cult hit. Songs such as “Blkoscars,” the title track and the closer “Amphetamine” remained in the ears of Smino diehards and general hip-hop fans alike as the new style they brought to underground rap’s forefront was unprecedented.

Now, even in its opening songs, NOIR once again unrelentingly embraces this weird, off-kilter approach to making rap music. A rapper trying to chase mainstream attention might bookend his or her projects with more accessible songs that grip the listener’s attention before moving onto deeper cuts — Smino walks away from and throws this strategy in the trash behind him. “KLINK,” the third song on the track list, sees Smino shriek and squeal his way to new heights atop a tantalizing beat backed with strong drums and myriad instrumental motifs.

In discussions of today’s hip-hop scene, it is common to hear claims that contemporary rappers are nothing without their producers — those who provide the backing instrumentation. While Smino is ridiculously talented in his own right, with his infinitely malleable voice and prolific flows, his better half is his main producer Monte Booker.

Booker, a Chicago artist who appears on 10 of NOIR’s 18 songs, makes beats in a way that perfectly complements Smino’s verses and melodies. The song “SPINZ” makes use of a synth reminiscent of a windshield wiper — turning an amalgam of simple sounds into something complex is Booker’s bread and butter. He barely incorporates samples in his beats, instead relying heavily on a transfixing blend of soul, R&B and jazz to elevate each track he produces.

While it is a huge boon to Smino’s music, Monte Booker’s production does not define or confine Smino’s ability by any means. Smino can only hold a candle to Booker’s beats because he himself is insanely talented. Admittedly, his lyrics aren’t the most thought-provoking bars you’ll hear in 2018, by a long shot.

In an era of hip-hop when melody and flow far exceed pure lyricism in importance, Smino, however, charts his own course on the contemporary wave by using words that not only make contextual sense but also add their own vocal effect to the beats that back them.

Lines, such as “White diamonds with the blackface, cultural appropriate / Sour, you can smell that from across the way / Smokin’ Hadouken, yeah, on that Kamehameha / That’s just how we stay up, stay up, ask my neighbor, neighbor” from “SPINZ,” show Smino’s tendency to densely pack songs with bars in a way that explains simple concepts with catchy, winded metaphors that create a less serious, more playful feel within the album at large.

Whereas the seamless transitions of blkswn are what made it feel cohesive, NOIR is often intercepted by long, awkward interludes at the endings of many songs that sometimes add to the album’s cohesion — such as in the outro to “WE GOT THE BISCUITS” — but mostly leave the album disjointed to a fault. The album sounds less like the good kid, m.A.A.d city or Ctrl-esque album Smino aimed to create and more like one long night at Smino’s studio where his collaborators show up, perform and make way for the artist next in line.

Despite its deceptively dark album title, NOIR’s brimming exuberance is present from start to finish. Smino’s daring individuality and the album’s purposeful inaccessibility comprise a double-edged sword that rewards seasoned fans for the hour-long listen but might sound discordant to curious first-time listeners.

Justin Sidhu covers music. Contact him at [email protected].